Committee Examines Issue of Women Separating From Military

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 28, 2006 - Female military doctors, lawyers and chaplains are more likely than their male counterparts to leave the military after serving five to eight years. The Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services wants to know why.

By examining these three career fields, the committee hopes to understand why female servicemembers in general have such higher rates of military separation during this period, Mary Nelson, chairwoman of DACOWITS, told the Pentagon Channel Aug. 25.

Nelson said it's important to retain more women, and that finding why they're leaving during this time frame may help to accomplish this.

Early findings are simple, she said. The main reasons women are getting out after five to eight years of service is to start a family. "They don't want to have a 2-week-old (baby) and have to be deployed," Nelson said.

One possible solution to this problem, she said, is "on-off ramps," points at which servicemembers can take a leave of absence from the military. While calling the concept a good idea, Nelson acknowledged that it comes with some issues.

"If we have these off-ramps, where people can get out and take a two-year leave, then it becomes an issue of when they come back, where are they?" she said. "Are they still with their same class they entered with? If so, then they're at a great disadvantage and aren't going to be promoted through the ranks. So as they come back, adjustments have to be made to their date of rank so that they're competitive again.

"It seems like we have provisions for people to leave for educational reasons, then come back in, so maybe this could be extended," she added.

Because survey data never tell the full story, DACOWITS members go to installations and hold focus groups among female servicemembers, Nelson said. Committee members ask a broad range of questions to help them understand the problems these women face and their reasons for wanting to leave the military.

When meeting with these women, the committee members are eager to illicit possible solutions from the women, Nelson said.

The committee's 2005 report studied issues related to work/life balance and found that most women put their families first. "They're making the decision based on their family as well as their deep desire to serve their country," she said.

The committee concluded that female servicemembers garner great satisfaction from overseas assignments, but consider the needs of their families first, Nelson said. "I think that really was the focus of our report last year," she said. "How can people balance their work, their career and the needs of their families?"

Numerous high-ranking military officials of both genders stressed to Nelson that women offer something the military would not have without them.

"They offer a different perspective. They offer a different way of looking at things, a different way of communicating, a different way of gathering points of view and getting consensus," she said. "It's a different way of doing things, and it's something the military members I've talked to feel very strongly that the military needs."

The Defense Department Advisory Committee on Women in the Services was established in 1951 by then-Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall. The committee is composed of civilian women and men appointed by the secretary of defense to provide advice and recommendations relating to the recruitment and retention, treatment, employment, integration and well-being of highly qualified professional women in the armed forces.

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